A Movie, the Homeless and Public Libraries

When I read a description of a movie that starts, “The story revolves around the library patrons, many of whom are homeless, mentally ill and marginalized, as well as an exhausted and overwhelmed staff of librarians who often build emotional connections and a sense of obligation to care for those regular patrons,” I didn’t automatically think of mainstream movie starring folks like Jena Malone, Christian Slater, Emilio Estevez, Taylor Schilling, Gabrielle Union and Alec Baldwin. I was even more shocked to see a few critics refer to the movie as set “inside one of the last bastions of democracy-in-action: your public library.” I mean, I think that about the public library, but I work in libraryland.  But, sure enough, that is what The Public is – a mainstream release of a movie set in a library.

I haven’t seen it yet, it premieres Jan. 31st at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, but the premise already has me thinking. Mostly about the issues of homelessness and libraries but also about the provocative image from early in the Occupy movement of a woman holding a sign that said, “You Know Things are Messed Up When Librarians Start Marching.”

One of the beautiful things about a public service job is the public… or maybe it is also the downside. Public librarians, for the most part, see people every day and in every way. Based solely on the movie trailer I would say we don’t normally let things escalate like that…. we tend to be just a little less dramatic than Hollywood, but we are often in the position to set policy and procedure on things that can greatly affect the lives of our patrons. Decisions we make about something as ubiquitous as a backpack and whether it can be brought in to our library can affect the person who wants to use the library’s resources to find a job but has every possession they own in a backpack they are unwilling to leave in an open cubby by the front desk. The philosophy of libraries offering access for all people can be traced back to 1833 and the Peterborough (N.H.) Town Libraries which was the first institution funded by a municipality with the explicit purpose of establishing a free library open to all classes of the community. We have a long history of setting this goal but do we see it through in practice? Are we walking our talk?

Regardless of the dramatic spin the movie is likely to take, evaluating our procedures and policies with an eye toward the loftier ideals of our profession is always a good idea!

Kieran Hixon
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